Blood tests can’t confirm an esophageal cancer diagnosis, but they are part of the diagnostic process. Additional tests, such as a CT scan, endoscopy, barium swallow, and biopsy, are needed to confirm a diagnosis.
Blood tests are part of the esophageal cancer diagnostic process, but they can’t confirm a diagnosis. Instead, doctors typically use blood tests to look for signs of esophageal cancer progression.
For instance, you might have blood work done to see whether your red blood cell count has dropped or if your liver is still producing a healthy number of proteins and enzymes.
To confirm a diagnosis, you’ll need additional tests, such as:
These tests show the presence of a tumor. Once a doctor confirms your diagnosis, treatment can begin.
Keep reading to learn about the types of blood tests doctors use to detect esophageal cancer and the additional tests they use to confirm a diagnosis.
A blood test alone isn’t enough to detect esophageal cancer. However, your doctor might use blood work to check for certain signs and help confirm a diagnosis.
Common tests ordered include:
- Complete blood count (CBC): A CBC measures different cell types, such as red or white blood cells, in your blood. This might be done because esophageal cancer can cause a low red cell blood count.
- Liver panel: A liver panel looks at the enzymes, proteins, and other substances your liver is producing. You might have this test if your doctor suspects esophageal cancer has spread to your liver.
You’ll likely need several tests to confirm a diagnosis of esophageal cancer.
The process starts with a visit to a doctor. They will review your symptoms, medical history, and family medical history. Then, they will order tests to look for esophageal cancer.
These tests might include:
- Barium swallow: A barium swallow is a specialized X-ray that is taken after you swallow liquid barium. It allows doctors to see the inside of your esophagus.
- CT scan: A CT scan uses X-ray imaging to create 3D pictures of the esophagus and surrounding organs.
- MRI: An MRI uses magnetic fields to create images that allow doctors to view the insides of organs and tissues. It can help them get a close-up look at tumors.
- PET scan: A PET scan is a CT scan that involves being injected with a radioactive sugar that highlights areas of your body that could be cancer in CT images. You might have this test if your doctor suspects your cancer has spread.
- Endoscopy: An endoscopy is a test that uses a small and thin tube called an endoscope with a light and camera on one end. This tube is inserted into your esophagus so doctors can get a detailed look. Surgical tools are often attached to the endoscope, so a biopsy can be performed alongside the endoscopy.
- Biopsy: A biopsy removes a sample of tumor tissue to test it in a lab for cancer cells. A biopsy is typically needed to make a final diagnosis.
- Endoscope ultrasound (EUS): An EUS is done by attaching an ultrasound to the endoscope tube. This test is often done to look for cancer in surrounding tissue and lymph nodes.
- Genetic testing: Sometimes, genetic testing is done to look for tumor markers and biomarkers, such as gene mutations. This can help doctors create the best treatment plan for you.
Esophageal doesn’t always cause symptoms in its early stages. When it does, the first symptom is typically difficulty swallowing. After that, symptoms can include:
- chest pain
- unintentional weight loss
- black stool (from bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract)
Esophageal cancer shares symptoms with many other conditions. However, if you experience any of these symptoms for more than 1–2 weeks, it’s always best to get a medical checkup.
As is true of all cancers, esophageal cancer is most treatable when detected early.
The exact cause of esophageal cancer is unknown. It’s thought to be linked to genetic changes and mutations. Sometimes, these changes might be inherited. Other times, other factors might cause them.
Some risk factors linked to esophageal cancer include:
- male sex
- older age (over 55 years)
- smoking or using tobacco products
- heavy alcohol consumption
- overweight or obesity
- gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Barrett’s esophagus
- Plummer-Vinson syndrome
- history of lung, mouth, or throat cancer
- HPV infection
- a diet high in processed meats
- inactive lifestyle
- injury to the esophagus
A blood test alone cannot diagnose esophageal cancer, but you’ll likely have a blood test during the diagnostic process.
A blood test can check for low levels of red blood cells or damage to your liver. These two things can happen when esophageal cancer spreads.
In addition to blood work, you will likely have tests such as a barium swallow, CT scan and MRI imaging, endoscopy, PET scan, biopsy, and endoscopic ultrasound. These tests help confirm your diagnosis so you can begin treatment.
There’s no known cause for esophageal cancer, but certain risk factors, including older age, lifestyle, and previous esophageal health, can all increase your chances of developing the condition.